SANTOS, Brazil (Reuters) - Waving flags and sharing memories, Japanese immigrants and their descendants gathered near a Brazilian beach on Wednesday to remember the arrival of a steamship 100 years ago that heralded a wave of immigration that has marked both countries’ identities.
Three Japanese navy ships sailed into the port city of Santos, cheered by a small group of mostly elderly Japanese who waved to the sailors standing smartly to attention.
“You see that — 8.30 sharp,” said 74-year-old Kyoto-born Yukinore Shimon, swelling with pride at Japanese punctuality.
The 781 impoverished pioneers on the ship Kasato Maru and the thousands who followed them never meant to stay beyond a few years on Brazil’s vast coffee plantations. Now there are about 1.5 million Japanese immigrant descendants — or Nikkei-jin, with an influence on Brazilian society from martial arts to architecture and business.
A wave of reverse immigration since the 1980s by thousands of Nikkei-jin seeking work has also spread Brazilian influence back to Japan.
“I’m so happy today because we really worked hard to get where we are, and I’m so grateful to the Brazilians who welcomed us so warmly,” said Reiko Konno, who emigrated with her family from Miyagi prefecture in the 1930s.
Like many Japanese here, Konno said she felt some conflict about her identity. “I still feel Japanese in my heart, but I have Brazilian habits — I’ll give anything a try,” said the sprightly 79-year-old, who goes surfing three times a week.
The immigrants’ contribution is being celebrated in hundreds of events in multiracial Brazil.
In Brasilia, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva welcomed Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito, who was greeted by a cannon-fire salute and presidential guards.
“The Japanese immigrants who arrived here with hope for the future helped to build Brazil and the strong relationship (between the two countries),” Lula said at a ceremony.
The Japanese were not welcomed by all at first. While their labor was needed badly 20 years after the abolition of slavery, they were seen by some Brazilians as not bringing the desired “whitening” of the country through immigration.
The orderliness, cleanliness and politeness of the pioneers, despite a grueling 52-day voyage from Kobe, was a early sign of the qualities they would bring to Latin America’s largest country. Many of them arrived wearing Western clothes and waving small Brazilian and Japanese flags made of silk.
“Everyone was surprised at how clean the room was — not a cigarette butt, no spit, a complete contrast — to other immigrants,” wrote Amandio Sobral, the inspector of immigrants for Sao Paulo in 1908, describing a guest room where they stayed after arriving.
Promises of high earnings from the “trees that grew gold,” as propaganda leaflets had described the coffee plants, evaporated when immigrants arrived on farms to find old slave quarters awaiting them that hadn’t been maintained for years.
“My father ran away from the farms because there was no money there,” said 79-year-old Isaltina Uehara, whose father, Bunguru Naka, arrived on the Kasato Maru.
While many Nikkei-jin still marry other Japanese and try to maintain traditions, some worry that the latest generation has little to connect them with their distant ancestral home. Few of the third or fourth generation speak good Japanese.
“There are no Buddhist temples here in Santos; we have to go to Sao Paulo,” said Shimon, who came to Brazil in the 1950s to escape the post-war devastation in Japan.
But Kaoru Ito, a 71-year-old survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb who came to Brazil aged 18, said that it some ways Japanese culture felt stronger here than back home.
“Japanese culture is strong in Brazil, while it seems to be weakening in Japan,” he said. “Because our grandfathers and grandmothers made all this effort our customs have continued.”
Sussumu Tanaka, a 92-year-old native of Osaka, remembers little about his 1926 voyage from Japan except running around the deck playing as a child with his family.
“I don’t want to go home,” he said in halting Japanese from his Sao Paulo home. “I don’t think about it any more.”
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Chris Wilson